As a nurse on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, Zachary Falconer hit "pause" on life outside of family and work. He chose to go back to school.
"I had been a nurse for two years and decided it was time to finish my bachelor's degree. Universities moving to online coursework offered the perfect flexibility for my schedule," he said.
Falconer is a student in the Registered Nurse (RN) to Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) online program at the University of Maine at Fort Kent (UMFK).
"Hopefully in the next year and a half, I can complete the program. I take one or two classes at a time right now which seems to work well while working full time and wanting to spend time with my wife and two children," he said.
Falconer received a bachelor's degree in graphic design in 2008. He went on to pursue a career in healthcare, later earning his EMT license. He found a job in Baystate Medical Center's ICU where he worked as a patient care technician. There, he met the person who would become his wife.
After nine years in that role, Falconer decided he was ready to grow into a new job at the hospital. He started taking prerequisite credits for a local nursing program. He completed his Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) while still working at the hospital and welcoming a newborn. He then transitioned into a position as a nurse in the medical-surgical and neuro ICU. His recent acceptance into UMFK's RN to BSN online program was timely.
"Working as a nurse in the same department where I had been a patient care tech has been a big transition with much bigger responsibilities, but it's been good so far. I'm learning a lot every day and getting more confident in my role," he said.
So Far, So Good
Falconer works three, 12-hour shifts every week to have more time at home with his wife and young children: Isaac (3) and Asher (9 months).
"Our hospital pushes for associate degree nurses to obtain their bachelor's. With Magnet status, they push for the advancement of their nurses, but that wasn't really my pressure," he said. "Going back to school was always something I wanted to do."
The hospital he works for provides tuition reimbursement, which has been very helpful to Falconer, who recently completed the Holistic Health Assessment with Lab course through UMFK.
"I really enjoyed how in-depth this course went week by week, covering a different body system to assess on a patient," he said. "I applied the concepts immediately at work."
Falconer also found navigating the online learning format easier than expected. He was impressed by the timely feedback from his advisor and instructors.
"The program that UMFK uses for online coursework (Brightspace) is user-friendly and very visually pleasant, and the support from the staff is great. They have all been eager to help.
"My wife was part of the last class that I took, serving as my patient. The final project was a head-to-toe assessment which I had to videotape," he explained. "She seemed to enjoy her role, and I appreciated the time and effort she invested."
Choosing a career was initially challenging for Falconer, but life experience pointed the way. His wife has been supportive from the beginning.
"I'm good with people, and I always care about helping them. Working so many years as a patient care tech allowed me to absorb some of what nursing was all about," he said.
Falconer was also influenced by a family of helpers. His mom is a labor and delivery nurse who also went back to school to further her education. His older brother works as a firefighter, his younger brother serves as an EMT, and his father is a plumber.
"My dad isn't in the medical field, but he has still been influential. He owns his own business and built his own house. He's just a very hardworking person and role model," Falconer said. "I'm grateful to have such admirable parents."
While Falconer enjoys clinical care, he aspires to one day serve in an administrative role or one where he can work from home and spend more time with family.
With a few courses in the online RN to BSN program under his belt, Falconer feels more confident treating COVID-positive patients as vaccines are rolled out and he continues to develop his skill set.
"Initially, I was more scared about potentially bringing the virus home to my family, even with all the PPE. The volume of COVID-19 patients was high, but that's changed, and the intimidation factor is much less going into these rooms after being vaccinated," he said. "I feel much more comfortable, but going through a pandemic has been hard."
In his free time, Falconer enjoys playing volleyball with friends, going to the movies and spending time at home with family.
He and his wife were both approved for Massachusetts Paid Family Leave, which allows them to take a shift off per week until their son's first birthday.
"With an extra day off per week, I decided to take an extra class," he said of his desire to complete the program more quickly. "I'm lucky to have found the University of Maine at Fort Kent. I did the research to find the best university where I could complete my degree online, and I'm happy with my experience so far."Learn more about UMFK's online RN to BSN program.
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